Alcohol abuse is the most common addictive disease in the world. It’s also difficult to overcome. A preliminary study from researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University has found a new way to treat this addiction—with some help from the gut-brain axis.

The gut and the brain share many of the same neurotransmitters…chemicals that carry messages between nerve cells. People with severe alcohol abuse develop liver damage (cirrhosis) that may alter the gut bacteria and the gut-brain axis. The researchers wanted to see if replacing the gut bacteria in people who abuse alcohol with bacteria from a healthy donor could reduce alcohol cravings.

Gut bacteria can be transplanted from a healthy donor through a stool transplant, called a fecal microbiota transplant (FMT). This involves taking stool from a healthy donor and placing it into the colon of another person by way of an enema. FMT is used mainly to treat people with severe antibiotic-related diarrhea. Using FMT to treat addiction is a recent development.

In this study, published in the journal Hepatology, 20 patients with severe alcoholism and cirrhosis were randomly assigned to receive one FMT enema or one placebo enema. All the patients had failed drug and behavioral therapy treatment, suffered from alcohol cravings and continued to drink. They were all men, with a mean age of 65.

Research findings: After 15 days, nine out of the 10 patients in the FMT group reported less alcohol cravings compared with only three patients in the placebo group. The patients were also tested for their ability to control thoughts and answered questions related to quality of life. The FMT group scored higher in these evaluations. Finally, at 30 days, urine testing showed significantly less alcohol use in the FMT group.

The researchers conclude that FMT is safe. Over the short term of the study, it reduced both alcohol craving and alcohol use. This was a small preliminary study. If the findings are supported by larger studies, FMT could become an effective remedy for the difficult-to-treat—and sometimes deadly—disease of alcohol addiction.

Source: Study titled “A Randomized Clinical Trial of Fecal Microbiota Transplant for Alcohol Use Disorder,” by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, published in Hepatology.